Chinese 內家
Hanyu Pinyin nèi jiā
Literal meaning internal family
Traditional Chinese 武當拳
Hanyu Pinyin wǔ dāng quán
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Nèijiā (Chinese: ; literally "internal school") is a term in Chinese martial arts, grouping those styles that practice nèijìng (Chinese: ; literally "internal strength"), usually translated as internal martial arts, occupied with spiritual, mental or qi-related aspects, as opposed to an "external" (Chinese: ; pinyin: wài) approach focused on physiological aspects. The distinction dates to the 17th century, but its modern application is due to publications by Sun Lutang, dating to the period of 1915 to 1928. Nèijìng is developed by using "nèigōng" (), or "internal exercises," as opposed to "wàigōng" (), "external exercises."

The internal styles are also known as Wǔdāngquán, named for their association with the Taoist monasteries of Wudangshan range, Hubei Province in Chinese popular legend. These styles were enumerated by Sun Lutang as Tàijíquán, Xíngyìquán and Bāguàzhǎng, but most also include Bājíquán and the legendary Wudang Sword.

Some other Chinese arts, not in the Wudangquan group, such as Qigong, Liuhebafa, Bak Mei Pai, Bok Foo Pai and Yiquan are frequently classified (or classify themselves) as "internal".



Qing China

The term "nèijiā" and the distinction between internal and external martial arts first appears in Huang Zongxi's 1669 Epitaph for Wang Zhengnan.[1] Stanley Henning proposes that the Epitaph's identification of the internal martial arts with the Taoism indigenous to China and of the external martial arts with the foreign Buddhism of Shaolin—and the Manchu Qing Dynasty to which Huang Zongxi was opposed—was an act of political defiance rather than one of technical classification.[2]

In 1676 Huang Zongxi's son, Huang Baijia, who learned martial arts from Wang Zhengnan, compiled the earliest extant manual of internal martial arts, the Nèijiā quánfǎ.[3]

Republic of China

Beginning in 1914, Sun Lutang together with Yang Shao-hou, Yang Chengfu and Wu Chien-ch'uan taught t'ai chi to the public at the Beijing Physical Education Research Institute. Sun taught there until 1928, a seminal period in the development of modern Yang, Wu and Sun-style t'ai chi ch'uan.[4] Sun Lutang from 1915 also began publishing martial arts texts.

In 1928, Kuomintang generals Li Jing Lin, Zhang Zi Jiang, and Fung Zu Ziang organized a national martial arts tournament in China; they did so to screen the best martial artists in order to begin building the Central Martial Arts Academy (Zhongyang Guoshuguan). The generals separated the participants of the tournament into Shaolin and Wudang. Wudang participants were recognized as having "internal" skills. These participants were generally practitioners of t'ai chi ch'uan, Xíngyìquán and Bāguàzhǎng. All other participants competed under the classification of Shaolin. One of the winners in the "internal" category was Bāguàzhǎng master Fu Chen Sung.

Sun Lutang

Sun Lutang identified the following as the criteria that distinguish an internal martial art:

  1. An emphasis on the use of the mind to coordinate the leverage of the relaxed body as opposed to the use of strength.
  2. The internal development, circulation, and expression of , the "vital energy" of classical Chinese philosophy.
  3. The application of Taoist dǎoyǐn, qigong, and nèigōng (內功) principles of external movement.

Sun Lutang's eponymous style of t'ai chi ch'uan fuses principles from all three arts he named as neijia.[5] Some Chinese martial arts other than the ones Sun named also teach what are termed internal practices, despite being generally classified as external (e.g. Wing Chun). Some non-Chinese martial arts also claim to be internal. e.g. Aikido, I Liq Chuan, Ip Sun, and Kito Ryu jujutsu. Many martial artists[who?], especially outside of China, disregard the distinction entirely[citation needed]. Some neijia schools[who?] refer to their arts as "soft style" martial arts.

Neijia training

Internal styles focus on awareness of the spirit, mind, qi ("energy") and the use of relaxed (sōng ) leverage rather than muscular tension.[6] Pushing hands is a training method commonly used in neijia arts to develop sensitivity and softness.

Much time may nevertheless be spent on basic physical training, such as stance training (zhan zhuang), stretching and strengthening of muscles, as well as on empty hand and weapon forms which can be quite demanding.

Some forms in internal styles are performed slowly, although some include sudden outbursts of explosive movements (fa jin), such as those the Chen style of Taijiquan is famous for teaching earlier than some other styles (e.g. Yang and Wu). The reason for the generally slow pace is to improve coordination and balance by increasing the work load, and to require the student to pay minute attention to their whole body and its weight as they perform a technique. At an advanced level, and in actual fighting, internal styles are performed quickly, but the goal is to learn to involve the entire body in every motion, to stay relaxed, with deep, controlled breathing, and to coordinate the motions of the body and the breathing accurately according to the dictates of the forms while maintaining perfect balance.


The reason for the label "internal," according to most schools, is that there is a focus on the internal aspects earlier in the training, once these internal relationships are apprehended (the theory goes) they are then applied to the external applications of the styles in question.

External styles (外家, pinyin: wàijiā; literally "external family") are characterized by fast and explosive movements and a focus on physical strength and agility. External styles include both the traditional styles focusing on application and fighting, as well as the modern styles adapted for competition and exercise. Examples of external styles are Shaolinquan, with its direct explosive attacks and many Wushu forms that have spectacular aerial techniques. External styles begin with a training focus on muscular power, speed and application, and generally integrate their qigong aspects in advanced training, after their desired "hard" physical level has been reached.

Some say that there is no differentiation between the so-called internal and external systems of the Chinese martial arts,[7][8] while other well known teachers have expressed differing opinions. For example, the Taijiquan teacher Wu Jianquan:

Those who practice Shaolinquan leap about with strength and force; people not proficient at this kind of training soon lose their breath and are exhausted. Taijiquan is unlike this. Strive for quiescence of body, mind and intention.[6]

Current practice

Many internal schools teach forms that are practised for health benefits only. Thus, T'ai chi ch'uan in spite of its roots in martial arts has become similar in scope to Qigong, the purely meditative practice based on notions of circulation of qi. With purely a health emphasis, T'ai chi classes have become popular in hospitals, clinics, community and senior centers in the last twenty years or so, as baby boomers age and the art's reputation as a low stress training for seniors became better known.[9][10]

Traditionalists[who?] feel that a school not teaching martial aspects somewhere in their syllabus cannot be said to be actually teaching the art itself, that they have accredited themselves prematurely. Traditional teachers also believe that understanding the core theoretical principles of neijia and the ability to apply them are a necessary gateway to health benefits.[11]

Neijia in fiction

Internal styles have been associated in legend and in much popular fiction with the Taoist monasteries of Wudangshan in central China.[12]

Neijia are a common theme in Chinese Wuxia novels and films, and are usually represented as originating in Wudang or similar mythologies. Often, genuine internal practices are highly exaggerated to the point of making them seem miraculous, as in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Tai Chi Master. Internal concepts have also been a source of comedy, such as in the films Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle.

See also


  1. ^ Shahar, Meir (December 2001). "Ming-Period Evidence of Shaolin Martial Practice". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 61 (2): 359–413. doi:10.2307/3558572. JSTOR 3558572. 
  2. ^ Henning, Stanley (Autumn/Winter 1994). "Ignorance, Legend and Taijiquan" (PDF). Journal of the Chenstyle Taijiquan Research Association of Hawaii 2 (3): 1–7. 
  3. ^ Shahar 2001
  4. ^ Wile, Douglas (1995). Lost T'ai-chi Classics from the Late Ch'ing Dynasty (Chinese Philosophy and Culture). State University of New York Press. ISBN 978-0791426548. 
  5. ^ Yip, Li (Faye) (April 1998). Principles and Practice of Sun Style T'ai Chi – T'AI CHI The International Magazine of T'ai Chi Ch'uan Vol. 22 No. 2. Wayfarer Publications. ISSN 0730-1049. 
  6. ^ a b Woolidge, Doug (June 1997). T'AI CHI The International Magazine of T'ai Chi Ch'uan Vol. 21 No. 3. Wayfarer Publications. ISSN 0730-1049. 
  7. ^ Francis, B.K. (1998). Power of Internal Martial Arts: Combat Secrets of Ba Gua, Tai Chi, and Hsing-I. North Atlantic Books.
  8. ^ Wong Kiew Kit (2002). Art of Shaolin Kung Fu: The Secrets of Kung Fu for Self-Defense Health and Enlightenment. Tuttle.
  9. ^ Yip, Y. L. (Autumn 2002). "Pivot – Qi". The Journal of Traditional Eastern Health and Fitness (Insight Graphics Publishers) 12 (3). ISSN 1056-4004. 
  10. ^ "SGMA 2007 Sports & Fitness Participation Report From the USA Sports Participation Study". SGMA. p. 2. Retrieved 2007-08-18. 
  11. ^ See chapter on Rose Li in Smith, Robert. W. (1999). Martial Musings. Via Media. ISBN 1-893765-00-8. 
  12. ^ Yip, Y. L. (Autumn 2002). Pivot – Qi, The Journal of Traditional Eastern Health and Fitness Vol. 12 No. 3. Insight Graphics Publishers. ISSN 1056-4004. 
  • Pa Kwa Chang Journal (volume 1, #3; volume 2, #6; volume 5, #2; and volume 6, #6)
  • Fu Style Dragon Form Eight Trigrams Palms by Fu Wing Fay and Lai Zonghong (translated by Joseph Crandall); Copyright, 1998, Smiling Tiger Martial Arts

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